The two basketball hoops loom over the amassed children below like weather-beaten umpires. Their current condition is in stark contrast to the tennis racquets being wielded by the kids of Aspeca orphanage, some of which are so new that the protective plastic remains on the handles.
Alongside the nets provided by both the tennis giant Wilson and the International Tennis Federation (ITF), this disparity sums up a shift in the fortunes of tennis in Cambodia. Following the country’s historic Davis Cup win in April this year, a new dawn beckons, and under the gaze of Tep Rithivit, secretary general of the Tennis Federation of Cambodia (TFC), it is hoped the Kingdom’s children will be the stimulus for prolonged success.
At the Kep branch of Aspeca orphanage, in the searing afternoon sun, it quickly becomes apparent that the future could be as bright as the weather. Far from the disorganised rabble and limp swings that might be expected of a group of under-12s, many of the kids bounce around on the baseline with confidence and wind up their forehand like mini-pros, sending the ball screeching just centimetres over the net.
Tep Rithivit greets the kids with high fives and watches proudly before taking to the court himself, rallying with one kid at a time. “Oh, you don’t like dealing with a slice,” he says playfully to one of the orphanage’s most promising talents, before peppering the kid with sliced shots.
“The whole idea is for them to have fun and to provide them with a new dimension in their lives,” he says later.
“The job of our federation is to make tennis available to all. That is why we are making very big efforts to go out in the provinces and advertise the sport. Tennis is definitely not football or boxing as far as popularity is concerned, but we do believe that we can make a little difference.”
The TFC currently works with a number of schools and orphanages in Phnom Penh, Takeo, Kandal and Kep, with an expansion planned for Kampot later this year. Following a youth programme called Tennis 10s, introduced by the ITF, the aim is to make tennis enjoyable as well as accessible for younger players by using softer tennis balls in order to encourage rallies.
“Many of us remember when we started playing tennis 20 or 30 years ago, it was with the same balls they would play championships with and we would spend more time picking the balls up than actually hitting them,” says Tep Rithivit. “Tennis 10s equipment allows a rally to go up to 15 or even 20 exchanges, which makes it very interesting for the kids and gets them excited. You don’t fall in love with a sport because you are walking around picking up balls all day.”
The TFC currently employs 12 coaches to implement these ideas. One of them, Sok Ngo Sisowath is also the founder of Ayravady School in Kep – one of the institutions now working alongside the TFC. Sat beside the court at Aspeca, he seems astonished by the reaction of Ayravady’s students, many of who are forced to work by their parents for much of the day, often as foragers on the local dumpsite.
“They are crazy for it,” he says with a smile. “We have recently watched the French Open and Wimbledon on television and now that is all they want to do. They are always talking about Nadal, Djokovic, Federer. They also love Bun Kenny [Cambodia’s number one tennis player] because he spent three days with them, teaching them tennis, so they all want to be like him.
“It is brilliant for them because it is not only about tennis, the sport helps teach them discipline,” he adds. “They are now much more punctual and reliable because I told them if they want to play, they have to show up all the time, listen to their teacher, wash their kit, generally show commitment.”
Sok also says that the kids have been given extra impetus after some of them attended Cambodia’s first Junior National Tournament in June. The event was for the under-11 age group and Tep Rithivit sees it as proof that tennis need not be a game reserved for the wealthy.
“As a clear indication of where tennis in Cambodia is, we have 29 courts in total in our country, including those in hotels,” he says. “Vietnam has over 2,300 courts, and Thailand has about the same. Yet our top player is ranked higher in the ATP world rankings than Vietnam’s.
“It is one of my main motivations. I grew up hearing this – that tennis is a game for the fortunate ones. But because of the ITF and because of the Tennis 10s programme, we are trying to prove that it can be accessible.
“Look at the last junior nationals, two of the finalists were orphans, one of whom just started playing tennis five months ago and the other about a year ago. They were facing well-off kids that play tennis four or five times a week with private coaches.”
One of these prodigies was even crowned Cambodia’s junior champion in the male category. Chin Samphor, just nine years old, is an Aspeca boy who is causing much excitement among his coaches.
Decked out in a white cap, white t-shirt, black shorts that hang just below his knees and a red Nike wristband, he certainly looks the part but it is when he takes to the court at Aspeca that he truly shines. His smooth forehand belies the fact he has only been playing for about a year. He moves with confidence, almost a swagger.
Just minutes later, however, he sits down and barely takes his eyes off his friends’ rallies as he speaks. The only time he does look away is to stare down at the large gold medal hanging from his neck, which he fiddles with nervously.
“I enjoy playing tennis, I just love it,” he says quietly. “I like my coach, I like the way he teaches because he never scolds me. He is always smiling when he coaches and he makes tennis fun for us… I think I will carry on playing when I get older because I want more wins, more medals, and I want to be an international player.”
Indeed, that is the ideal scenario for players with Chin Samphor’s level of talent, with the next step for promising players being private lessons on a full-sized court with a TFC coach. By the time a player reaches ten years of age, it is hoped he or she will be ready to be coached at the TFC’s national training centre in Phnom Penh.
“These things can go very, very quickly,” Tep Rithivit says. “Using Samphor as an example, if he is what we think he is and gets to 13 or 14 and starts playing abroad, winning or doing well in a few tournaments, he can find himself on the ITF junior team, where everything is paid for, before going on to play on the ATP tour. And that is how a tennis player is born.”
While the reality is that most of these fledgling Federers will not make it that far, Tep Rithivit is adamant that “the bus doesn’t stop there”. He points out that the TFC will always need coaches, citing the need for “a constant evolution of transferring your knowledge to the next guy in line”. A case in point is Long Chomnith, 25, who began as a ball boy, evolved into a fine player and now works as a coach.
“I started playing tennis at 12 years old with Rithivit,” says Long Chomnith. “Now I am a coach and have been for four years. I just love being involved in tennis and teaching the kids makes me very happy.”
“So it is not that when you don’t quite make it to the national team it is the end,” says Tep Rithivit. “I’d say it is only the beginning. These guys are the pillars of the federation.”
Cambodia’s next Tennis Queen?
At Cambodia’s first Junior Nationals tennis tournament in June, the cream of the country’s young crop took to the court in Phnom Penh to battle it out for the title. One girl captured the attention of the assembled onlookers. Hour Sreypov, from Boeung Kyang orphanage in Kandal province, is just eight years old and weighs in at 30kg, yet she reached the final of the girls under-11 tournament, showing incredible poise and technique for a kid who picked up a racquet for the first time just five months ago. “What struck me most were two things: the focus evident in her facial expression and intensity on court, and her natural footwork,” says Tep Rithivit.
“I love tennis and I want to become one of the best players,” says Hour Sreypov. “The TFC is giving opportunities for boys and girls in Cambodia to train and participate. I will try to work hard in order to become an international player.”